It's Greek to Me

By Pete Brunoehler

By Pete Brunoehler

In a successful business, just as in daily conversation, healthy two-way communication is important. But as an expat manager in Malaysia, you may find that achieving this on your team takes training, practice, and diligence.

If your mother was anything like mine, she probably reminded you from an early age that you were given two ears and one mouth, and that you should use them proportionately. As an expat manager, one who is typically among the more senior members of your organization, you may at times reverse that proportion and do a lot more speaking than you’ve done in the past. However, communication functions best as a two-way street (hence the word “dialogue”), and so too will training and development sessions with your Malaysian team.

I recall holding one of my first management team meetings in our KL HQ. As I had instructed, each manager was to present slides with their results and initiatives, and then we all – as the management team – were to question, suggest, challenge, assist, and generally engage with the presenter. So while I did realize after a couple of presentations that the discussions were largely “one to one” – the presenter to me, the boss – I felt the group was beginning to share input and mesh nonetheless. It was only when I looked up from my seat in the back of the room to the front left of the U-shaped conference table, seeing the Head of Sales and the Head of Marketing quietly snoozing next to one another, that I realised I still had some serious work to do as far as active participation.

In another experience, I was conducting a training course for a sales training program used by one of the companies that I led in Malaysia. I had previously attended and taught this very interactive course in the US, but this was my first time to do so in Asia. While teaching, I was very impressed with myself and my team, because it seemed everyone understood everything,

there were no questions, and we completed the course ahead of schedule. (Wow, I thought, I am good!) Then the role plays started. They were disastrous. I may as well have presented the overview entirely in Greek!

Key takeaways from this experience:

  1. If yours is like most marketing organizations, you’ll hold regular cross-functional meetings, i.e., with your Heads of Sales, Marketing, Finance, Operations, Customer Service, Repair, etc. Manufacturing groups will likely add Production and Engineering Heads. Such meetings create excellent opportunities to illustrate to your managers that they all hold two dimensional roles: one as the Head of their own functional area, and another as a Member of the Leadership Team.

  2. However, due to culture, school experiences, and probably past bosses, these meetings are typically not really cross-functional; they become individual presentations to the boss. Make it clear that you are a team, and that all members are expected to participate in discussions and decisions in all areas. Initially, they may resist, but once they engage, not only will they grow professionally, your team will achieve a better outcome – remember, two (or more) heads are better than one.

  3. When conducting training, you must call on individual participants. In my experience, you’ll definitely need to require this participation and force involvement – at least initially. While growing up and attending school in Malaysia, your team members probably did not routinely see free-flowing discussions, challenges to the teachers, vigorous and healthy debates, etc. Typically they saw the teacher talking and the students quietly and passively listening. In a thriving business setting, this is far from ideal.

  4. If you are working with a seasoned team, or if you follow a predecessor who utilized this very interactive approach, you can skip this whole section. But my experience has been that you’ll need to force interactive involvement until it becomes clear and second nature for your team to repeat, model, role play, and ultimately learn.

In conclusion, the Training and Development of your local team in Malaysia is a task that you have been given and a key reason for your expat assignment. As the teacher/trainer, you’ll be inclined to work hard to convey your knowledge. But stay mindful of the fact that the success of all your hard work and effort is only going to be realised through your team taking what you are giving. This means that you provide the format and information, but they internalize it – learning and participating actively in a way that is probably counter to what they are used to, and illustrating back to you what they have learned. That is successful teaching, successful learning, and a fine legacy that you can leave behind.

Pete Brunoehler is Managing Partner of AMark Consulting Southeast Asia, the first Asian office of US-based AMark Management Consulting. AMark partners with clients in a variety of industries to overcome internal and external growth barriers, and to maximize performance and profitability. For more information, please visit, or contact him with no obligation at